First Conference of Russian Zionists Is Held in Warsaw

August 17, 2019


August 17, 1898

Held a few weeks before the Second Zionist Congress was set to convene in Basle, Switzerland, 160 Russian Zionists from ninety-three cities and towns in Russia met secretly in Warsaw.  The meeting was initiated by Ahad Ha’am.  Born Asher Ginsberg, Ahad Ha’am had attended the first Zionist Congress in 1897 as an observer and was deeply disturbed by the political nature of the fledgling movement.  He was especially critical of Theodor Herzl’s leadership and approach.  Ha’am believed a Jewish cultural renaissance would be the solution to the problems of world Jewry and that emphasis should be placed on teaching Jews nationalist values before initiating political actions.

In Warsaw, Ha’am rallied many of the Russian delegates to support of his positions.  After the Warsaw meeting, in a letter to Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, a scholar who would later edit The Book of Legends with Haim Bialik, Ha’am proclaimed,

I wish you could have seen how they crowded around me, both veterans of Hibbat Zion and many of the young Zionists.  You could see in the faces how glad they were to find someone willing to tell the truth to the political Zionists, someone unintimidated by their demonstrations and numbers. You would feel, as I did, that these people know I did them well by rekindling the tradition of Hibbat Zion, which they now are prepared to defend with all their might.  (Goldstein, Yossi. “Ahad Ha-‘Am: A Political Failure?” Jewish History 2.4 (Fall 1990): 35.)

The Warsaw Conference showed that although Herzl had mobilized the forces of political Zionism following the First Zionist Congress, there was still significant support for Ahad Ha’am’s conception of cultural Zionism.  While many of the attendees went from Warsaw to the Second Zionist Congress in Basle which began on August 28, Ha’am did not participate.  Because he did not attend, Herzl and his followers were able to convince the Russian delegates that the decisions made in Warsaw would ultimately be harmful to the Zionist Movement. The Ahad Ha’am/Herzl disagreements of Zionism’s content and ideology continued to dominate the Zionist Movement as it grew over the next fifty years.  As a movement, its strength was in its diversity, all aimed at Zionists being able to choose and define the nature of their own destiny where Jews would be assembled.

In September 1902, a second all-Russian Zioinist Conference was held legally with consent of the Russian authorities in Minsk.  There were nearly 500 delegates in attendance.

[In the photo are Ahad Ha’am (bottom row right) with Hayim Nachman Bialik (second row right), Mordechai “Ben-Ami” Rabinowich (top row left) and Yehoshua Ravnitzky (bottom row left) in 1926. (Photo from the Central Zionist Archives)]